Review: Auckland Museum

Auckland, New Zealand

Quick Review

When planning my visit to Auckland, this was the top of my list of “must-see” attractions.

The Auckland museum contains collections of:

  • Maori and Pacific peoples, with a special emphasis on the Maori who are the dominant group in New Zealand (the majority of the floor space is devoted to Maori culture).  The display primarily focuses on customs and its “origin stories,” which the Maori tell to explain the origins of the world.
  • Natural history of New Zealand, which explains the origins of New Zealand, how its distance from other land areas contributes to its collection of unique wildlife and plants, and how volcanoes not only created this area, but continue to do so.
  • War Memorial of Auckland, which tells the story of New Zealanders who fought in various wars since the British assumed rule of the country.  Some of the wars primarily involved aboriginal populations fighting each other; others involved New Zealanders joining the British in wars elsewhere, including the Boer War and World Wars 1 and 2.
  • International and New Zealand design.

Strengths include:

  • The two exhibitions on design, both of which explore design between the 1600s and later.  One focuses on international design, the other on developments in New Zealand.  Both display unique and beautiful objcts that are also representative of particular movements, and feature some of the clearest, most concise documentation that I have seen in exhibitions of this sort.
  • The natural history galleries. They contain the requisite dinosaurs to entertain children.  But rather than use dioramas, which many of the major natural history museums continue to use to introduce native habitats—but that visitors can only walk by—the Auckland Museum uses immersion displays so that visitors can literally walk into some of these environments, including caves.
  • The displays in the Maori and Pacific People’s galleries, which were extensive, well-documented, and show the depths of the collections.  Among the masterpieces there are recreated Maori buildings and a massive Maori war canoe.

Weaknesses:  The primary weakness with this museum is that it doesn’t really tell the story of Auckland.  It only contains one gallery that explores the history of the area: a recreation of a street in Auckland in 1866.  On the one hand, the exhibition—which recreates many commercial buildings and a home or two—provides visitors with a feel for the city at that time.  But the exhibition does not provide any background on why exhibit designers chose to recreate that point in time, much less provide any insights into how Auckland was founded and grew.

The same historical void exists in the Pacific People’s galleries.  Although they provide extensive coverage of the cultures, these galleries provide limited information on the histories of these peoples, and visitors leave with more questions than answers.

Although I recognize that many history museums want to avoid becoming a timeline on a wall and eschew the chronological presentation of history, the history and development of a people and a community are top of mind among visitors to a city museum such as this one, so their oversight leaves a gaping hole in the coverage of this museum.

Furthermore, many similar museums provide superb examples of imaginative ways to display the history of a community, such as the Minnesota wall of history and Minnesota A to Z exhibitions at the Minnesota Historical Society (and the upcoming Then, Now, Wow, which looks like it is the replacement to Minnesota A to Z), the walk-through-history approaches of the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Hong Kong Museum of History, and the Metropolitan Frontiers exhibition at the Atlanta History Center.

The other weakness was the display on volcanos, which was more like a book about volcanos on a wall.  Following the more imaginative and immersive galleries on natural history, this was a disappointment.

Insights gained include a greater understanding of the maritime, agricultural, economic, and technical achievements of the Pacific peoples as well as their cultures—especially those of the Maori, a more thorough understanding of the Boer War (one that I know little about), and a new appreciation of New Zealand design.

Fast Facts about the Museum 
Sometimes called: Auckland War Memorial.  The Museum and the Memorial are the same facility.Type of Museum: History and CultureHighlights of the Permanent Collection:

  • Maori and Pacific peoples, with a special emphasis on the Maori who are the dominant group in New Zealand.
  • Natural history of New Zealand, which explains—among other things—the development of the kiwi.
  • War Memorial of Auckland collections.
  • A recreated street scene of Auckland in 1866.
  • International and New Zealand design.

Special Amenities:

  • Located in a heritage building high on a hill, easily visible throughout the central parts of town
  • Café, run by a local coffee company and serves unique and tasty foods.  Service was slow and prices were high.
  • Gift shop, which features some artisan goods in addition to the typical tschatchkas sold by history and natural history museum shops.
  • The recently remodelled museum atrium is an architectural delight. Although tour buses leave visitors here a half-hour before opening, visitors can pass the time in the atrium and visit the café and gift shop, both of which open before the museum.

Admission Discounts: Visitors with hop-on, hop-off bus tickets receive a 50 percent discount.  

Issues to Consider When Visiting:

  • Leave about 90 minutes for a quick look at everything.  For a more in-depth look, leave at least 3 hours, though you still won’t be able to see all of the galleries in-depth.
  • The museum is in the large Domain park and next to some a large greenhouse that’s open to the public.  If weather and time permit, plan to stick around.

Website: http://www.aucklandmuseum.com/

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